It should come as no surprise that nearly half the U.S. population suffers from at least one chronic disease.
A more startling statistic: The cost of treating these patients accounts for more than 75 percent of the nation's $2 trillion medical bill, according to a 2005 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Many of these dollars are spent on high-tech treatments and surgeries. But billons pay for less dramatic but far more numerous events, such as routine doctor visits, lab tests and other monitoring procedures.
|Core of wireless ECG patch|
In the next few years, many of those spiralling costs could go into remission.
Chronic disease monitoring and treatment is one part of the healthcare bill that doesn't have to spiral perpetually up. This sunny diagnosis can be made in large part because remote monitoring using wireless technology is finally getting its interoperability act together worldwide.
Telehealth technologies are being developed and deployed to reduce visits to hospitals and doctors' offices and improve patient health with lifestyle coaching. This first telehealth wave will be quickly followed by a second, in which highly sophisticated sensors attached to and implanted in the body will communicate over body-area networks. The focus will shift from providing lifestyle modifications to delivering just-in-time, life-saving information to physicians.
Telehealth will create opportunities for design engineers. The market for remote personal health monitoring will reach $5 billion in 2010 and explode to $34 billion by 2015, according to Elizabeth Boehm, senior analyst at Forrester Research.
The first big step will come at the end of this year when the Continua Health Alliance releases its initial guidelines for wireless and wired data transport between monitoring devices and healthcare providers. While these guidelines will involve familiar devices, such as blood pressure cuffs, glucose meters, pedometers, thermometers and weight scales, the data transport structures are applicable to far more sophisticated devices.
Next-generation devices are already being deployed in hospital trials. One example is a wireless ECG monitor designed by the Inter-university Microelectronics Center (IMEC) that integrates electrodes, a biochip sensor, MCU and radio into a package about the size of a very thin wristwatch. Algorithms running on the patch's processor monitor for heart arrhythmias 24/7. It can run for a week on a small battery.
The concept becomes even more interesting with technologies still in silicon prototype stage, including ultra-low-power DSPs tuned for biomedical signal analysis, low sample rate/high-resolution ADCs, ultra-wideband radios that consume two orders of magnitude less power than Bluetooth, and MEMS-based energy harvesters that will replace batteries.